POLOKWANE (Reuters) - New Zealand's soccer team can look forward to a bright future after a World Cup run in South Africa surprised many and took them to the brink of a shock qualification for the tournament's second round.
The All Whites, one of the lowest ranked sides in soccer's biggest competition and with no big name players, ended the group stage unbeaten, after holding more accomplished teams, including world champions Italy, to draws.
"I think I need to probably pinch myself ... we've finished in the top 24 in the world," coach Ricki Herbert said after the final Group F match against Paraguay saw New Zealand finish third in the group on 3 points after three draws.
Most experts saw the side that has only one player from a major soccer league -- captain Ryan Nelsen plays for England's Blackburn Rovers -- as the whipping boys of the group.
Herbert said there were great things to come from a young team, with most of the players likely to be around for the next World Cup in 2014 in Brazil.
"I think when you look at the team, 85 percent of it can go on to the 2014 programme and there are not a lot of sides that are in that position," he said.
"The future looks extremely bright for this team."
The hype generated from the tournament, which saw usually rugby-mad New Zealanders glued to screens watching their unheralded side, might also lead to a few more youngsters taking up soccer and spreading the selection pool.
A survey by Sport and Recreation New Zealand two years ago showed that only 5.5 percent of New Zealanders over 16 years of old had played soccer at least once in the previous year. The country's total population is about 4.3 million people.
Many of the squad are still aged in their 20s with standout players Tommy Smith and Winston Reid only 20 and 22 respectively.
Those two helped form a solid defence alongside Nelsen that conceded only one goal from open play, against Slovakia. With a debatable penalty awarded to Italy, the team let in two goals in three games.
Herbert coaxed Smith back from England and persuaded Reid to play for New Zealand after the tall defender represented Denmark at under-19 and under-21 level.
The coach, who played in New Zealand's only other World Cup in 1982 that ended in three heavy defeats, said the team raised their game and urged the world to take notice.
"I think right across the board players have really grown in stature. Everyone has played well and I can't find anyone who has not contributed at the highest level."
With neighbours Australia now competing in the Asia qualifiers, New Zealand have an easier path to the World Cup through the Oceania division and may well see many more tournaments.
However, opponents will be more wary of them in future.
Editing by Michael Holden